North Korea already harbors heightened suspicion and mistrust of Washington’s motives, fearing that the U.S.’ real objective is removal of the Kim regime and reunification of the Korean Peninsula under South Korean leadership. U.S. abandonment, without just cause, of the Iran deal would both validate and exacerbate those beliefs; to Pyongyang, the lesson would be that Washington saw diplomacy merely as a prelude to efforts to isolate, pressure and seek to remove the Iranian regime. Why would Kim Jong Un even begin negotiations if he is convinced that Washington would then look for excuses to unravel an agreement, should one be reached?
The message from Washington, of course, would not be heard in Pyongyang alone. The administration’s too-clever-by-half strategy of messing around with the Iranian nuclear accord—doing just enough to tempt Tehran to walk away from the deal after Trump publicly acknowledged that his goal is to undo it—almost certainly would undermine its credibility with nations whose cooperation it desperately needs to deal with the North Korean nuclear challenge. The recent unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution imposing tougher sanctions on North Korea demonstrates two things: first, that a unilateral U.S. approach is impracticable; and second, that China and Russia can be useful partners in pressing Pyongyang on its ballistic missile and nuclear programs. If anything, the Trump administration is banking too heavily on Beijing to somehow solve the problem on our behalf.
But consider China’s reaction should the U.S. treat the nuclear agreement with Iran in a slapdash, dismissive manner. Beijing might well be angered given its interests in buying Iran’s oil and investing in its infrastructure. But it would be positively alarmed at the implications for North Korea, which presents China with a major security headache on its doorstep. China long has maintained that diplomacy with Pyongyang is the only viable answer to the North Korean nuclear problem, and it believes in the six-party format, which, not entirely unlike the seven-party format of the Iran negotiations, includes both China and the U.S. The precedent of the U.S. effectively dismissing an accord negotiated by a team of countries and ratified by the U.N. Security Council would give China considerable pause, raise serious questions in its mind about whether the U.S. can be trusted not to act similarly with North Korea, and make it virtually impossible for Beijing to vouch for Washington’s good faith vis-à-vis Pyongyang.